Eating Disorders in Boys May Show Up as Muscles

A muscular man lifts weights.
A workout supplement may contain a compound similar to methamphetamine, a new study says. (Image credit: Muscular guy photo via Shutterstock)

Eating disorders may be more common in boys than previously thought, new research suggests.

But because boys may focus more on being muscular than being skinny, they may be missed by evaluations aimed at catching disorders in teen girls focused on an unhealthy obsession with thinness.

"Males and females have very different concerns about their weight and appearance," study co-author Alison Field, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital, said in a statement.

The researchers looked at 5,527 teenage boys ages 12 to 18 living across the U.S.

Overall, more than 3 percent met the criteria for an eating disorder, either bulimia or binge-eating disorder. (The researchers classified teens with binge-eating disorder if they reported bingeing at least once per month.)

More than 9 percent of the boys said they were very concerned with having a muscular physique. About 2 percent of teen boys had used steroids, supplements or growth hormones with the aim of achieving the bodythey wanted.

In addition, about 2.5 percent were very concerned with being thin but not muscular, and 6.3 percent were concerned with being both thin and muscular.

Adolescents who were highly focused on being thin were more than twice as likely to become depressed, the researchers found. Being concerned about being muscular was also associated with higher odds of abusing drugs.

But despite the prevalence of these body concerns, most people may miss them in boys.

"Clinicians may not be aware that some of their male patients are so preoccupied with their weight and shape that they are using unhealthy methods to achieve the physique they desire, and parents are not aware that they should be as concerned about eating disorders and an excessive focus on weight and shape in their sons as in their daughters," Field said.

The paper was published today (Nov. 4) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.                           

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.